Covid-19 Response From Global Makers

During the first few months of the pandemic, when a lot of products, especially personal protection equipment (PPE) in healthcare settings, was in short supply or completely unavailable, a lot of people in various makerspaces mobilized to invent and produce replacements they could build quickly. Our own Communautique (coordinators of this year’s Fab City summit) were part of that effort with echofab and their design and production of a visor [fr]. These actions saved lives and drew the attention of many, including an international group of researchers who wrote a paper on this work, Covid-19 Response From Global Makers: The Careables Cases of Global Design and Local Production.

We draw our cases from the experiences made in Careables, a mixed community of people and organizations committed to the co-design and making of open, personalized healthcare for everyone. With the presented cases we reflect on the potential implications for post-pandemic local production of healthcare products and analyze them from a social innovation perspective. These global experiences are valuable indications of transformative innovations that can reduce dependencies from international supply chains and mainstream mass production.

The research team prepared an exercise to guide the case representatives in their self-reflection process, they organized a focus group to discuss the studied projects together, and present a detailed report addressing some of the successes, challenges and failures. The research concentrated particularly on the work of groups in Brazil, Cameroon, Netherlands, Iraq, and Italy.

In Brazil, before the outbreak of the pandemic, four maker-oriented organizations had established collaborations with the Careables project and started to function as local hubs which connect local communities of persons with (physical) healthcare needs, care givers, and public healthcare professionals with the community of makers and medical herbalists. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the activities of these local hubs, called Careables Olinda, completely shifted to producing PPE and other medical supplies in order to fight the pandemic.

Interestingly, the project they looked into in Cameroon was the Mboalab, “a community biology lab, comprising molecular biologists, biochemists, public communications specialists, microbiologists, and electro-mechanic technicians, who act as educators in the local community.” This is a less common kind of makerspace, with their focus on biology, which gives the report a more varied perspective.

Given the sensitizations, training, and collaborations achieved during this period of the pandemic, the population, community biologists, and makers stand a chance of independently handling future pandemics or epidemics by confidently producing PPE or other materials that might be required to fight the pandemic. The approach is to educate and equip the population with the skills to be able to handle the crisis without depending on the government, non-profit-organisations, or foreign aiders.

The team at Amsterdam’s Waag encountered problems in gaining acceptance with commercial companies for their production but ended up participating in other ways.

Overall, the impact of Waag’s engagement has been mainly in coordinating and pushing the notion of maker skills towards other domains, rather than organizing and producing PPE. Building on a network of local, national and international organizations, Waag was able to push the added value of maker skills as a driving innovation force.

In Iraq, healthcare professionals were enthused by this collaboration.

In collaboration with local industry, local civil society, and academicians, a response infrastructure was set up taking care of e.g. monitoring the needs of PPE, providing raw materials, communicating with healthcare services, PPE production, PPE distribution, online digital statistics monitoring, and research and development. Medical staff highly appreciated the efforts done by the maker community and requested even more face shields and research into other types of PPE.

And in Italy the scaling of production seems to have been quite effective and well organized, helped along by the creation of three different initiatives.

One of those initiatives alone, Make in Italy, collected over 500 contacts from makers, small laboratories, startups and Fab Labs. Their website currently lists over 25,000 items produced and donated. Opendot, a Fab Lab in Milano, Careables partner and specialized in working with the healthcare sector, was involved in the national coordination activities from the onset and contributed to overcoming the local medical supply shortage.

Overall, a lot of lessons learned and a lot of useful information collected by the research team, well worth a read for some of the organizational details of such on-demand projects.

Although tools of fabrication like 3D printers and others have often been heralded as the arrival of at-home manufacturing, they have so far proven much more valuable (and credible) as neighbourhood or city-level tools, regrouped in Fab Labs and makerspaces. The case of the COVID19 pandemic has provided the perfect training ground to discover or confirm the potential of a local, rapid, and highly flexible form of fabrication. In this case they saved lives, but they can also be extremely useful places of creation for less dramatic projects of value for their communities.